on the job

The Wikinews Ace

Why Shimon Peres sat down with David Shankbone
January 27, 2009

One morning in December 2007, a law-school dropout named David Shankbone sat on a couch in Shimon Peres’s office in Jerusalem. He’d been invited into the Israeli president’s inner sanctum for an exclusive interview with the elder statesman. Peres reclined on a velvet chair next to Shankbone, nibbling cookies while he talked in his soporific baritone about the future of nanotechnology, the likelihood of a first strike against Iran, and why Israeli youth turned to drugs. “He has a thick accent and he talks so low,” Shankbone recalled. “I couldn’t even understand him.”

Shankbone had flown to Israel earlier that week for a press junket on Israeli technology, organized by the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Along with half a dozen reporters from news outlets like BusinessWeek, USA Today, and Slate, he’d been shepherded on a whirlwind tour of the country’s tech industry. Before the trip, Shankbone had optimistically requested an interview with Peres, and was caught off-guard when, four days in, he found out one had been scheduled the following morning. “I flipped out,” he said. Shankbone scrambled to assemble a set of questions. “I think the Shimon Peres interview is one of my worst interviews,” he told me. “I felt like I had this responsibility to ask certain things . . . things he gets asked a million times. I wish it had been a much more philosophical interview. I would love to ask Shimon Peres how he would choose his own death.”

The strange thing about this whole episode isn’t that a little-known reporter landed an hour-long interview with Shimon Peres. It’s that he isn’t a professional journalist. Shankbone isn’t even his real name. It’s the nom de plume of David Miller, who until recently was a paralegal at Herrick, Feinstein, a top New York law firm. For the past year and a half, he’s been moonlighting as a reporter for Wikinews, a Wikipedia offshoot that’s languished in obscurity since its debut in 2004. Wikinews was created as the news equivalent of the encyclopedia: anybody can write and edit stories. It is an experiment in pure amateur journalism, and it functions a bit like a haphazard wire service. Most of the five to ten stories posted each day are cobbled together from mainstream sources; only two or three a week involve original reporting, the bulk of which is done by two dozen “Wikinewsies,” like Miller, who are accredited through the site.

Miller is Wikinews’ star reporter, and his niche is in-depth q&as. He’s interviewed nearly forty public and not-so-public figures, including the Reverend Al Sharpton, journalist Gay Talese, the editors of The Onion, and the owner of an S&M dungeon. He posts the mostly unedited transcripts on the site, along with a photo of the subject and the occasional snippet of audio. “I just wanted people to talk to,” the thirty-four-year-old told me over dinner at 7A, an all-night joint that’s one of his favorite places to eat near his apartment in Manhattan’s East Village. “I was curious about people who attained goals and how they felt about them.”

Miller’s journalistic sideline began in 2005 after he dropped out of Fordham Law School. He says he couldn’t afford the tuition for his final year because he missed a few credit-card payments and didn’t qualify for loans. His older sister gave him a low-end digital camera for his birthday (he’s since upgraded), and he began snapping photos around the city, which he’d then upload to relevant Wikipedia articles that had no images.

It was around this time he created his pseudonym. “Miller” was too generic, he said, and not easy to track online. (Type “David Shankbone” into Google, and he’s a top hit.) Miller liked the sound of “Shankbone” because of its masculine, slightly pornographic ring. The Israelis he met on his press junket thought it was Jewish, a reference to the beef shank bone used in Passover seders.

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Eventually, Miller got tired of just taking photos. He’d always considered himself a writer—he wrote about the war in Iraq and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina for a student news blog at Fordham—and when a volunteer Wikipedia editor suggested he check out the fledgling Wikinews, Miller decided to broaden his journalistic repertoire. He had already begun contacting minor public figures, such as First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams and BBC America’s “Punk Professor” Vivien Goldman, offering to take free, quasi-professional portraits of them for Wikipedia. It seemed a natural step to interview them.
Miller put out dozens of cold calls. He called people like Donald Trump and Rosie O’Donnell because he considered them “cultural icons,” and others because he found their line of work interesting. (He interviewed German-American folk singer Antje Duvekot, for instance, simply because he wanted to interview a folk singer, and she was available.) Although Miller has managed interviews with a few high-profile subjects like Peres, he’s relatively unknown outside the Wiki community. Some of his pieces have page views in the single digits.

Miller’s interview style is conversational. His opening gambit is often arbitrary—for instance, he started his interview with Gay Talese by asking if it bothered him that his name has come to mean “homosexual.” (“No, it doesn’t bother me at all,” Talese responded.) Miller will often talk about himself. He says it’s soothing to share his experiences, particularly his sense of failure after dropping out of law school—and it seems to encourage his subjects to open up. “I’m telling you stuff I never said to anybody,” voice actor Billy West, who provided the voices for Ren & Stimpy and Bugs Bunny, told Miller after speaking about his alcoholism and being beaten by his father. Miller doesn’t play “gotcha,” but he does ask unusual questions and will push a bit—but not too much. “If I’m being combative, they can just end it on me,” he said. He once allowed Senator Sam Brownback to assert but not support his claim that God has a problem with homosexuality. “To really pin Brownback down,” Miller told me, “that’s a job for Chris Matthews.”

Not that Miller asks only softball questions. Here’s an exchange from his interview with Ingrid Newkirk, the co-founder and president of PETA:

David Shankbone: Do you have any regrets?Ingrid Newkirk: Professionally? Because that’s what we are talking about . . . .DS: Or personally.IN: I’m not going to talk about personally!DS: Just in general—in your life.IN: These are just terrible questions!DS: Sometimes terrible questions birth wonderful answers.IN: Oh, pwah!

At their best, his interviews can make for juicy, revealing reads. Take this example from his interview with gay author Edmund White:

David Shankbone: You have an open relationship?Edmund White: Yes.DS: Do you think that’s a necessity in order to have a successful relationship?EW: I wouldn’t preach for anybody else; I mean, everybody’s different. But for me, yes.DS: Where do you tend to find your sexual partners?EW: Online, now. Silverdaddies.com; daddyhunt. That’s where you go if you’re older. Or Manhunt and gay.com. Or slavesformaster. Those are all sites where I’ve met people.DS: Are you a slave or a master?EW: A slave, but I’m not much of one.

Miller is no provocateur or interrogator like Oriana Fallaci, who opened an interview with Yasir Arafat by asking him his age, twice, and who once asked the Shah of Iran if he would have thrown her in jail had she been Iranian. Miller prefers Terry Gross or James Lipton and cites them as influences. He wants to indulge his subjects, and delve into their personalities. He can be gentle and accommodating. He wants them to talk about their ideas and their craft. He typically tells a subject, “We don’t have an angle. It’s more of an information thing, just to get your thoughts and feelings.”

Miller told me he usually doesn’t do much research on his subjects. He credits his general knowledge for getting him through many interviews. Sometimes he’ll just read his subject’s Wikipedia profile to prepare. Still, he says, “I try to come off as someone completely knowledgeable.” He reads The Economist and checks Google News reflexively at work. He has e-mail alerts for keywords related to his idiosyncratic interests: rocker “Peter Doherty,” “Chinese credit,” and “world economy 2016” (interestingly, he told me early last year that he was convinced there will be a global economic collapse in eight years).

Miller can offer his subjects something the mainstream media often can’t: a chance to archive their words in the eternal Wiki-vault. Miller’s association with Wikipedia appealed to the Israeli Foreign Ministry, and one of Israel’s leading papers, Yedioth Aharonoth, lauded Shimon Peres for being the first leader to grant an interview to someone it described as a “senior” Wikipedia editor. Miller has other advantages: he has no professional duty to the public as surrogate or watchdog, and he isn’t trying to sell a product. He also doesn’t have an editor to contend with. This freedom can give his interviews, at their best, a disarming authenticity. They’re unpolished and earnest, if sometimes rambling. Miller tends to think of his work more as a personal art project than journalism. He may share a sense of curiosity with many professionals, but he doesn’t identify with them. In fact, he views the mainstream press with a bit of contempt. “The whole neutral media thing is just crap,” he told me during a short tirade. But he certainly doesn’t consider his work a substitute. “Someone who sits there and blogs about something will never replace a professional class,” he said.

When I asked Gay Talese what it was like to be interviewed by Miller, he told me Miller was polite and professional, but not distinguished in any way. Memoirist Augusten Burroughs, whom Miller also interviewed, praised him in an e-mail: “He has the mind of a lawyer. Which is to say, he’s extremely logical.”

In person, Miller possesses the self-assurance of a prosecutor and the practiced nonchalance of an arriviste. He dropped names as though he had a tick, and made it sound like he was chummy with many of his subjects. Maybe it’s true: on a blog he started this summer, he mentions that Ingrid Newkirk sent him a box of vegan food.

Miller’s work feels like a bit of a throwback to a time when Oriana Fallaci published long transcripts of her interviews in book form and David Frost broadcast a six-hour sit-down with Richard Nixon. Not that Miller is in their league as an interviewer, but there is something refreshing about the oral-history-like nature of his work. Bite-sized clips of recycled talking points dominate today’s media, but Miller strives in his interviews, however imperfectly, to be transparent and complete. He lets the subject’s voice come through. He gives the public his raw materials. He’s a conduit, without straining to be something more. 

Adam Rose is a former CJR intern and a freelance writer based in New York City.